For those who have never seen Bernie Parent close up, without his goaltender's hood, he looks like any other French comic: pepper-and-salt hair, thick black mustache, long cigar sticking from his mouth. Watch for him some night in the Philadelphia Flyers' parking lot at the Spectrum. He will be in or near a new brown Imperial with a bumper sticker that reads: ONLY THE LORD SAVES MORE THAN BERNIE PARENT. Bernie has a foggy voice and a quick trigger about his hair.
"After five years of marriage, you'd have gray hair, too."
"But, Bernie, you're only 29."
"That's O.K. I talked to my psychiatrist and he said it's nice to have gray hair in your 20s. Think positive, my friend, and you'll never go wrong."
So far in 1974 A.D. the positive-thinking Parent has not gone wrong very often. Employing the most resilient goal-line defense Philadelphia has seen since Chuck Bednarik performed for the football Eagles, Parent has been the indispensable man in the conversion of the Flyers from mere pugnacious pretenders to what they are this week: legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup. As Boston's Bobby Orr says, "Nobody dares call the Flyers an expansion team anymore." At the end of the NHL's regular season Sunday night the Flyers, champions in the West, trailed Orr's Bruins, the East champs, by just one point in the combined league standing, and led such established teams as the Chicago Black Hawks (by seven points), the Montreal Canadiens (by 13) and the New York Rangers (by 18). "We all played the same schedule, too, so there was nothing fluky about our record," said Flyer Captain Bobby Clarke on the eve of his team's opening-round cup series against the Atlanta Flames.
There certainly was nothing fluky about Parent's statistics. He started more games (73) and recorded more victories (46) than any goalie in NHL history, earned 12 shutouts, including last week's 4-0 blanking of the New York Islanders, and completed the season with a 1.89 goals-against average, the best in the league, as he helped the Flyers chop almost 100 goals from their 1972-73 total. "Bernie gave us great confidence," Clarke said. "We never had to worry whether he was on or off. He was on all the time."
In his shutout of the Islanders, Parent was a model of the goalie's craft. He rarely left his feet to block a shot, steered rebounds away from the New York attackers hanging around his crease and in all ways performed as if programmed by a computer. "It may look easy," he said afterward, "but it never is."
Parent is a package of nerves during a game, but he hides his emotions by wearing his mask from the time he leaves the Flyers' dressing room until he returns. "I don't want people to see what I go through," he says. His only obvious nervous trait is a systematic cleaning away of the loose ice chips in front of his net even when there are no loose ice chips.
Born in Montreal, Parent was raised on Bruxelles Street in the suburb of Rosemount. The best thing about the neighborhood for anybody wanting to be a goalie was that Jacques Plante's sister Therese lived next door. Plante, the goal-tender extraordinaire of the Canadiens, occasionally dropped by for a meal. "Plante was my idol," Parent says. "He always gave me good tips."
Like most young French Canadians, Parent dreamed of playing for the Canadiens in the Forum someday, but the Boston Bruins got him and assigned him to their junior amateur hatchery in Niagara Falls. Later he played parts of two seasons with the Bruins, and then the Flyers selected him in the original expansion draft in 1967. With Parent and Doug Favell on duty, the Flyers never worried about their goaltending in the early years. But they began to worry plenty about scoring goals. In an attempt to improve the attack they decided to trade a goal-tender. Favell seemed to fit better in the dressing room, so midway through the 1970-71 season Parent was dispatched to Toronto in a three-cornered deal that brought Rick MacLeish, a center who was to score 50 goals in 1972-73.
In Toronto, Parent joined forces with his old idol, Plante, who had become the Maple Leafs' No. 1 goalie. Parent was the master's pupil again. "Lots of guys don't like Plante," Parent says, "but he has been good to me. He's always by himself, you know, and how can you hate a guy when you never see him? The others reject him because he has the big bucks."
Plante and Parent spent long hours in deep goaltending conversation and even longer hours in private technical sessions on the ice. "Jacques did two big things for me," Parent says. "He improved my balance by getting me to keep all my body weight on my right foot, not my left, during a play, and he also taught me how to determine my exact position by banging my stick or my catching glove against the goalposts. I used to have to take my eyes off the play and look around to see where I was, and sometimes I gave up a goal because I wasn't looking at the puck."
But Parent was not really happy in Toronto. His wife Carol was a native of the Philadelphia area, and she never adjusted to life in a strange country. Early in 1972 Parent became the NHL's first official defector to the WHA, signing a five-year contract with the Miami Screaming Eagles for $600,000, a houseboat and other fringe benefits. When the Eagles failed to scream, Parent's contract was turned over to the Philadelphia Blazers.
He led WHA goaltenders with 33 victories last year, but his goals-against average ballooned to 3.61—practically double his average for this season. "They never played any defense in the WHA," he says with a shrug. On the eve of the WHA playoffs Parent's attorney-agent, Howard Casper, reportedly discovered that his client's escrow account of some $500,000 was empty. Parent performed in one playoff game but jumped the Blazers when, he says, the club's management was unable to guarantee the $500,000. When the season was over the Blazers moved to Vancouver and transferred the rights to Parent to the New York Golden Blades. Parent was leery about that team; he and Casper began talking with the Maple Leafs. Early last summer Parent agreed to return to the NHL if the Maple Leafs would trade him to Philadelphia. They did—for Doug Favell.
While Parent was away the Flyers had become a solid hockey club. Clarke, the diabetic rink rat from Flin Flon, had emerged as the league's MVP, MacLeish had scored his 50 goals, the Broad Street Bullies (Hammer Schultz, Hound Kelly and Moose Dupont) had established successful terror tactics, and Fred Shero, the coach, had instituted a no-nonsense approach to winning. Parent surveyed the scene and made a decision. "I think I used to be pretty selfish," he says. "It always was tough for me to get friends. So one day last summer I sat down and said, 'Bernie, maybe you ought to give more than you have been.' I had to change myself around a little bit."
Parent changed himself right into the blood and bone of the Flyers. The new Parent is so far from being an outsider that Shero uses him to boost teammates who are feeling down. Parent's current target is Right Wing Bill Flett, who has been in a goal-scoring slump. "Flett has played his best hockey since Bernie started talking to him," says Shero.
Earlier in the season Parent and his backup goaltender, Bob Taylor, had done their bit for harmony by taking the Flyer defensemen out to dinner. "They make it easy for us," Parent says graciously. "In the old days I used to have 13 or 14 tough saves every game. Thanks to those guys, now it's down to four or five." Thanks to Parent's skill in the save trade, the Flyers have big ideas.